Part used: leaf, flower
Tussilago farfara L. is found throughout Eurasia and is established in North America. It is a pioneer plant and can grow on very alkaline soils. It is low growing and spreads vegetatively by rhizomes. The Flora of Turkey gives 1 Tussilago species: Tussilago farfara.
Erect, scaly woolly stems (to 15 cm) bear single terminal yellow flowers with yellow disc and ray florets. The flowers precede the leaves and appear early in the year, in March to April in Britain. The large, round, heart-shaped leaves arise directly from the rootstock and have radial veins and crinkly, slightly toothed edges. They have a thick white downy covering underneath. The ‘clock’ of seeds is composed of achenes, which are viable for only a few months.
Coltsfoot colonizes waste land such as former open-cast mining sites and should not be collected where the soil is polluted by industrial waste.
Adverse events have resulted from collection of the wrong plant such as butterbur Petasites hybridus. The leaves of butterbur also appear after the flowers which are pinkish white spikes, but the leaves are much larger and coarser. The plants are clearly distinguishable with a field guide. Substitution of Petasites species can occur with dried leaf material as they are difficult to distinguish.
The concentration of pyrrolizidine alkaloids in coltsfoot varies widely and cultivation of a pyrrolizidine alkaloid-free variety is being developed in Austria.
Coltsfoot: Names And Associations
The shape of the coltsfoot leaf has inspired many of its names – bull’s hoof, foalswort, folefoot, horsehoof, ungula caballina; it also carries the practical name cough-wort. Dioscorides has several terms for the plant – bechion, pithion, pechion and petronion. Mattioli cites Galen that it is called bechium because it is thought to heal ‘buchas’, cough, shortness of breath, asthma. Hence we find a Greek precedent for tussilago, itself from tussis meaning cough. Perhaps the strangest name for the plant is filius ante patrem, the son before the father, which describes the exceptional appearance, fruiting and dying back of the flowers before any leaves appear. Such an unusual rhythm has drawn remark from a number of authors. Dioscorides (III 112) says some suppose it has neither stems nor flowers. It apparently led Pliny to believe this was the case, which Mattioli suggests is not unreasonable, the flowers with their short-lived appearance often only recognized by experts or those who come upon their path by fortune. Quincy obviously does not care for the name, occasioned, he says, by ‘some persons of conceit’. Simonis (1983) expresses the strange rhythm more poetically ‘the plant breathes out first and then in’. He remarks too how it is the first of the Asteraceae family to appear in the year, and very early compared to the majority of this family which, as the most advanced in the plant world, usually ‘adorn the height of the year’. The leaves can then flourish unpar-alyzed by the usual subsequent flowering process, while the next year’s flower buds are prepared underground through the late summer. Simonis relates this and other rhythms within the plant to an interpenetrating of sun and moon forces in a ‘mercurial equilibrium’ and links this nature to Steiner’s consideration of the lung/liver relationship, but detailed examination of these ideas is beyond the remit of this text.
Many authors, including Dodoens, Bauhin and Gerard, write of coltsfoot’s relationship with water; how it likes to grow on moist ground or near water, and Mattioli even relates how water seekers search out the plant because they know its presence indicates a water source. Yet Simonis (1983) says it likes to grow on rubble in waste places and Culpeper says it grows as well in wet grounds as in drier places. In a different element, Mattioli observes how this plant also provides the best tinder. The whitish down which grows on the roots, collected, wrapped in linen cloths and decocted with lye for a while, then with a little saltpeter added and dried in the sun ‘is the best tinder of all to create a fire struck from flintstone for it is so greedy of fire that it is lit immediately on the first striking of the steel’.
Outstanding Lung Herb
Medicinally there is considerable accord on the virtues of coltsfoot. It appears to be well regarded by all except a few later authors concerned about the pyrrolizidine alkaloid content (see later discussion). Grieve says it has been termed ‘nature’s best herb for the lungs and her most eminent thoracic’; Fox says it ‘cures where other medicines fail’; Weiss labels it the remedy of choice in chronic cases of cough; Hill dubs it ‘of excellent virtues’; and Quincy says ‘it is by all received as an excellent pectoral’. Its central theme is as a cough herb, with a small number of other faculties added to this core, mainly in relation to liver and skin. Only Hildegard, of all our authors, omits the cough action. It is hot, she says and is used in a mixture for a liver injured and hardened by immoderate intake of many foods. The recipe reads ‘he should make incisions in coltsfoot, and twice as much plantain root, and insert the mush from mistletoe from a pear tree (the same amount as the coltsfoot’).
Internal Use? The Older Perspective
Dioscorides has only one use for internal consumption of coltsfoot – the root, boiled in hydromel, expels a dead embryo/foetus. This use is rarely repeated in later texts. Other preparations in Dioscorides are for external use only or taken in via the lungs as smoke. He begins with external application of the leaves ground up with honey to treat erysipelas and all inflammations. The dried leaves are burned and the fumes inhaled through a funnel to treat dry cough and orthopnoea (see under hyssop). He adds that it will break abscesses of the chest too, but the ‘it’ is ambiguous, whether the inhaled fumes or the plant as a whole, and how taken is not clear and other authors have interpreted this variously.
Neither Pliny nor Galen necessarily advocate internal use. They both suggest the herb is burnt and the fumes inhaled, Pliny says through a pipe. Galen is equally as ambiguous as Dioscorides. It is slightly sharp, moderately bitter, he says, and so will break abscesses of the chest without harm, but again no mode of application is clear. The young leaves, Galen continues, applied externally, help parts blocked by harsh inflammation because of the admixture of a watery substance in which all fresh, green and tender things share, to a greater or lesser degree. The dried leaves are more bitter.
The Old English Herbarium, Ibn Sina, Serapio and the Salernitan herbal carry no entry for the herb.
Fox tells us the herb was well known and gathered freely by the women of Yorkshire and Lancashire for coltsfoot wine, but despite being most excellent for pulmonary disorders, it was probably not valued enough because of its abundance. For colds and severe coughs, he says, take 2 oz of the dried plant, boil in 3 gills water, leave 15 minutes, sweeten with honeyed or candied sugar, take a wineglass full four times a day; half the amount for children. Hool praises coltsfoot’s virtue, taken ‘at all times when there is disease of the lungs’, its influence more apparent when inflammation is present. He offers a recipe too; coltsfoot 1 oz, marshmallow leaf Althaea officinalis Vi oz, elecampane Inula helenium X oz, capsicum Capsicum annuum Yi teaspoon, in one quart boiling water until cool, then strain and add Yi oz antispasmodic tincture; take 2 tablespoon-fuls every 4 hours.
Simonis (1983) cites other authors as praising coltsfoot leaves for the scrofulous constitution of loose form with pale skin, skin ulcers, glandular swellings and the beginnings of lung and glandular tuberculosis. Mattausch, he says, claims the leaves were indicated in convulsive and chesty coughs and they work particularly well in patients who have an ‘irritable constitution’. He suggests a recipe from Marzell, who says that in some regions a syrup is made from coltfoot leaves by taking an earthenware pot and filling it alternately with layers of coltsfoot leaves and sugar; the pot is then sealed well and buried for a long time in the earth where the leaves should undergo a kind of fermentation. This syrup, when ready, is taken by the spoonful.
Grieve summarizes the uses from the Ancients. We can see from the entry that coltsfoot was a popular herb in Grieve’s day. ‘One of the most popular cough remedies’, she terms it, usually given with horehound Marrubium vulgare, marshmallow Althaea officinalis and ground ivy Glechoma hederacea. She gives a recipe for British Herbal Tobacco in which coltsfoot in the main ingredient, together with buckbean Menyanthes trifoliata, eyebright Euphrasia officinalis, betony Stachys officinalis, rosemary Rosmarinus officinalis, thyme Thumus vulgaris, lavenderLavandula angustifolia and chamomile flowers Matricaria recutita, which relives asthma and old bronchitis, catarrh and other lung troubles, having none of the disadvantages of normal tobacco, she assures us. She gives quantities for the decoction of 1 oz leaves in a quart of water boiled down to 1 pint, sweetened with honey or liquorice, taken in teacupful doses frequently, for colds and asthma. She also remarks on a stronger decoction sounding rather like that of Dr Fuller from Quincy, so strong as to be sweet and glutinous, which ‘has proved of great service in scrofulous cases, and with wormwood [Artemisia absinthium] has been found efficacious in calculus complaints’. Again one assumes it is drunk, but there is no specific instruction to that purpose.
- • Our recommendations err on the side of caution since the scientific evidence offers confusing, often conflicting information. Pending more firm evidence we suggest use within cautious limits. The herb should only be used as infusion and should not be used for children or in pregnancy and lactation. There appears to be no contraindication to external application.
- • In cough prescription for up to 6 weeks’ use, particularly for stubborn, old cough.
- • Particularly for emphysema and silicosis.
- • External application for lung problems, as a poultice.
- • External application for inflammations of the skin.
Dosage: the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia recommends 600 mg-2 g three times a day of dried aerial parts. However, given the safety concerns discussed below, the lowest effective dose should be sought.
(1 ppm = 1 microgram per gram)
Unsaturated pyrrolizidine alkaloids: senkirkine 0.5-46.6 ppm (mean 17.9), senecionine 0-0.9 ppm present in only four samples (10 samples, cultivated, Austria).
Senkirkine 0.45 ppm, senecionine not detected (1 :40 decoction for 15 minutes, commercial, Poland).
Senkirkine 0.52-73.5 ppm (mean 39.6 ppm) (11 preparations from five samples, decoction for 15 minutes, commercial, Eastern Europe).
Saturated pyrrolizidine alkaloids: tussilagine, isotussilagine and isomers.
Senkirkine 19.5-46.6 ppm, senicionine 0 to under 1 ppm (commercial powder, Singapore).
Senkirkine 0.45 ppm, senecionine not detected (flowers, commercial, Poland).
Leaf: total 7-8%, unspecified.
Oplopane-type: tussilagone, five new sesquiterpenes (flower buds, commercial, Japan).
Bisabolane-type: cryptomerion, two new sesquiterpenes; oplopane-type; aromadendrane-type: spathulenol; hydroxytremetone (flower buds, commercial, Japan).
Bauerenol and isobauereno (flower buds).
Two chromones (flower buds, wild, China).
Quercetin glycosides (flower buds, semi-wild, South Korea).
Up to 17% unspecified.